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Focused exhibition of three major series by Hank Willis Thomas on view exclusively at The Ringling
Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Caesar's Visa, 2009. Neon sign. 36 x 75 x 8 inches. Edition 3 of 3, with 1 artist proof. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

SARASOTA, FLA.- Striking selections from three of prominent contemporary artist Hank Willis Thomas’s most provocative series – Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015; Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008; and Branded – are on view at The Ringling.

Hank Willis Thomas: Branded/Unbranded is curated by Christopher Jones, associate curator of photography and new media at The Ringling, which is the sole venue for the exhibition. It has been installed in The Ringling’s Monda Gallery of Contemporary Art from Feb. 11 to June 10, 2018.

“Through these important works, Hank Willis Thomas decodes and reexamines stereotypes that have endured for generations,” said Steven High, executive director of The Ringling. “We extend our warm thanks to William and Jane Knapp, who generously donated funds for the purchase of 11 of Thomas’s images from the series Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015, which joined The Ringling’s growing contemporary collection last year and are now showcased in this special exhibition.”

Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015, a set of 100 digital chromogenic prints, reconsiders classic advertisements over the last 100 years, minus their original text. Released from any context, brand, product or messaging, the previously subliminal images are free to speak more directly to what is being sold: the constructed identity and reinforced stereotypes of white women in the U.S. over time. To make the archival ads he has photographed even more accessible, Thomas has added new captions – some funny and irreverent, some ironic and pointed.

The 11 Ringling images from Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015 form the nexus of the exhibition and are complemented by a selection of images from two earlier series by Thomas: Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968–2008, which explores exploitation of African Americans in advertising; and Branded, which features new photographs by Thomas paired with well-known marketing taglines and highlights the links between African American history and targeted branding campaigns.

“Hank Willis Thomas’s work offers uncanny insights into many of contemporary society’s most challenging issues surrounding race, gender and power,” said Jones. “His engagement with consumption trends and advertising keys into how identities have been created and perpetuated by the mass media and pop culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

A leading conceptual artist, Thomas was born in New Jersey in 1976 and is based in New York. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography and Africana studies from New York University, and a Master of Arts in visual and critical studies and Master of Fine Arts in photography from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. His practice incorporates a variety of media – including sculpture, video, photography, printmaking and textiles – and his works have been collected by and exhibited in major public institutions around the world. Thomas was recently awarded the AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize. Canada’s most significant award for contemporary photography, it recognizes photographers from around the world whose work has exhibited extraordinary potential over the preceding five years.

As Thomas commented in an interview with Time in 2011, “Part of advertising’s success is based on its ability to reinforce generalizations developed around race, gender and ethnicity which are generally false, but [these generalizations] can sometimes be entertaining, sometimes true and sometimes horrifying.”

Hank Willis Thomas: Branded/Unbranded is part of The Ringling’s ongoing and wide-ranging Art of Our Time initiative to present and commission new works by contemporary artists in the visual and performance fields.

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